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Ecclesial sources of secularization: reflections on the cathedral in San Salvador

July 17, 2011 1 comment

Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age offers a remarkable account of the development of modern secularity.  He understands this condition as involving, not merely the decline of religious belief, but also and more definitively a situation of mutual fragility occurring between various opposing perspectives on the world, society, the self, etc.  The rise of exclusive humanism as a positive and widely available option is the major source of this mutual fragility.  It keeps a theonomous view of things from being mostly taken for granted, as it once was in pre-modern Christendom.

I’ve  been reflecting on Taylor’s analysis recently in light of a visit which I made to El Salvador earlier this summer.  This context has led me to hypothesize that disunity in the church’s attitude toward political matters is, in various ways, a powerful force of secularization.  What I want to highlight, then, is a kind of fragility within the church itself–a fragility which may be, in some respects, generative of the growth of exclusive humanism and, therefore, of the mutual fragility which Taylor sees as constitutive of secularity.

The Catholic Church in El Salvador, as elsewhere, remains tragically divided.  The divisions are displayed starkly in the cathedral in San Salvador.  In the crypt below, a Mass takes place in memory of Monsignor Oscar Romero; images of the murdered and the disappeared are brought up during the offeratory; pamphlets and flyers are distributed by lay members of the community detailing pressing issues requiring immediate political action–issues in which what is at stake is precisely the protection of the poorest and most vulnerable members of society.

Up above, in the main sanctuary, another Mass takes place.  There will likely be no mention of Romero, no mention of political exigencies; these topics would be taboo.  The liturgical form is impeccable.  The message is usually traditional, somewhat predictable, therefore ostensibly safe, but not for these reasons untrue or unimportant.  Of course, as has often been noted, the sort of “apolitical” stance exhibited in the top part of the cathedral is, intentionally or unintentionally, always already implicated in politics.  In El Salvador, in the U.S. as well, perhaps in principle, silence implies a certain measure of consent.  Consent to what?  In El Salvador, to a society where many go without clean water, sufficient food, plumbing and sanitation, trustworthy police, basic healthcare, basic education, the prospect for a better life.  I do not mean to say that the people in attendance necessarily consent, but that the liturgy appears to, insofar as it consistently keeps silent on such matters, when they are all around and affecting everyone.

Hence, the topology of the cathedral manifests a split-level practice in the church itself.  There is a more explicitly political and a more covertly political form of worship and Christian identity formation dividing the space and the people of God into the regions of top and bottom.  The one body of Christ, received in both settings, has in each one a significantly different feel.

What does this situation have to do with the question of secularity?  On the one hand, secularization can be associated with politicization–and not without reason.  The line between a genuinely theological political theology and a post-theological political philosophy has tended to become blurred within modernity, with the result that the work of salvation has been transferred more and more to human hands.  The desire for a more “apolitical” liturgy can, accordingly, be understood at least in part as a desire to subordinate the modern political/secular sphere of worldly striving to a higher calling.  On the other hand, however, the “apolitical” approach also has the potential to promote secularization, and in several respects: (1) insofar as it is inevitably political in any case, (2) insofar as its pretense to transcend politics makes it appear, to many whose lives are in the balance, hypocritical and irrelevant, and (3) insofar as it factors into the paralyzing disunity in the church which compromises the meaningfulness and fruitfulness of its sacramental practice.  In all of these ways, the church risks its identity and its credibility.

Just as, in Europe, the fragmentation and discord in the church of the 16th and 17th centuries laid the groundwork for the rise of exclusive humanism as an increasingly prevalent option in the 18th and 19th centuries; so too, I fear that these sorts of grave tensions in the El Salvadoran church and the church throughout the world, if left unchallenged, will only hasten the globalization of secularity.  This ecclesial fragility is not the only factor, but it is an important one among others.

To address it, it seems that we need to recognize, minimally, (1) that the gospel, though more than political, has political implications; (2) that politics, though necessary, is not the only necessary thing; and (3) that any divisive rhetoric we use has a price, possibly a very high price, and should therefore be used only with great caution.  I would also suggest that we need to look once again to the example of Oscar Romero, who responded in faith to the needs of his society and saw no conflict between the two (orthodoxy and action).  His response to suffering, which led him in a more political, but not reductively political, direction must be seen as an increase in Christian theological rigor.

The most reliable way to resist secularization worldwide is to unite the church in a simultaneously divine and human love for the poorest of the poor.